Nuggets celebrate Women's History Month: How Amy O'Brien helps player development

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Moving to a new NBA city can be a difficult task for even the most seasoned NBA veteran.

There are familial and financial considerations, along with the adjustments that come with adapting to a new organization and its culture. For the Nuggets, that's where Amy O'Brien comes in.

Whether a player arrives in a trade, is drafted or signed as a free agent, O'Brien, the team's Director of Team Operations and Player Development, is usually among the first people he will talk to.

"I'm their first contact," O'Brien explained to Nuggets.com. "I mean, obviously, they've usually talked to Tim [Connelly], Artūras [Karnišovas] or their agent has spoken with them [about the move]…As far as like life [related matters], I'm the first person who is like 'Hey, welcome to Denver, let's get you here."

O'Brien will survey the incoming arrival to see what their immediate needs are. For example, do they have a family and if so, are they coming along right away? What are they looking for in housing? Are there off the court initiatives they have that they'd like to implement in the Mile High City? In a sense, O'Brien serves as an off-the-court front office point guard, helping facilitate a seamless transition and player development for the players on the Nuggets roster. 

"I make sure nothing off the court affects life on the court," O'Brien said.

O'Brien worked her way up within the Kroenke Sports and Entertainment over the past 14 years, starting as a Community Programs Manager before shifting into Basketball Operations as a Coordinator. Along the way, she helped various Nuggets with their off the court foundations, including Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Chauncey Billups. Her efforts ultimately landed her current position as a Director of Team Operations and Player Development just over six years ago. 

As one of the few women front office executives in the NBA, O'Brien understands how significant her role is and hopes her work opens doors for other women hoping to share her path.

"I think it's more about making sure you're not type casted, because I think it’s clear women can scout, women can be on the court [as coaches], women can work directly with players, we can do everything," O'Brien said. 

She added, "I think it's more of a mindset change, especially with some of the people who have been in the NBA forever when the league was much different. I think that's the biggest challenge, is always making sure that you can say, 'No I can do that, there's no reason I can't do that. And making sure people see that."

In a one-on-one sit-down with Nuggets.com, O'Brien shared her perspectives of being a leading executive in the NBA, the future of women in the league and the various challenges of her position. 

Here are her thoughts:

[Editor's Note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity purposes]

What exactly does player development mean in your role?

So there's obviously on the court player development and we have some incredible coaches who work with the players on court developing their game…I'm the liaison between the team and the NBA for all of their required meetings by the CBA. Just kind of like larger, big picture initiatives the league has that they want the players to learn or be more knowledgeable in. 

Then with each player, we meet and talk about what their goals are off the court – which is different with each player depending on where they are in their careers. Some guys are just trying to figure out how to navigate the NBA or how to read their paychecks. [They might want advice on] how to live on their own and have a budget for the first time. Whereas [other] guys might be planning for life after basketball and they may want to be networking or they may need me to be a contact for all of their other business entities or partnerships they have in the league.

Finally, some guys might have more domestic [focus] where they are trying to be better fathers or better sons, without being there every day [due to the demands of the NBA schedule]. So it's really different for everyone. We work together throughout the season to accomplish whatever [goals] that is for the player individually.

 What's the biggest challenge of your role?

I would say the hardest thing is whether or not you connect [with players] or you don't. It wouldn't be fair for me to say I've connected with all of our players over the past 13-14 years. That's impossible. I think it's so important in the beginning to get off on the right foot with guys.  I've had situations where I've had like a very surface-level relationship, but then through our time and me proving myself, we grow a relationship. Maybe I find a way where I grow close with their family or a certain friend in their life that helps me build that relationship. 

As these years go on, these guys are getting younger and I'm getting older, so constantly trying to find a middle ground where we can connect. I think that's the most important and challenging thing.

What would be your advice to women who are seeking to pursue a similar path to your own?

 Find something you're really good at, like a specialty. For me, I'm really great at building relationships. I don't forget a face or a name and that's a strength of mine. Find something that is your thing.

Maybe you're a stats whiz or an analytics whiz, get really, really good at that one thing. I would specialize because I think that's where you're going to find your value…Once you get into a front office or a basketball operations situation, you'll learn so many other things, but find that one thing that makes you a star and that gets your foot in the door and keeps you there.

The NBA continues to be progressive in hiring women assistant coaches and assistant GMs. Do you see there being a woman head coach or general manager in the league in the next five years?

Absolutely I do. Just knowing some of the women I work with on a daily basis league-wide, there are some really impressive women out there. That's not even speaking to all of the women being developed at the college level right now or at the league…I think we're completely at a place where we're going to see that happen within five years, if not, sooner. 

Finally, you work in a diverse front office that features different nationalities and another senior woman executive in Lisa Johnson. How special is that dynamic from an organizational standpoint?

I've been incredibly lucky for Lisa being here for almost 40 years. She's helped me from the beginning from when I was in community relations to when I moved to the front office.  So I'm so grateful for that. And I think having leaders like Josh Kroenke and his father [Stan], along with Tim [Connelly] and Artūras [Karnišovas] and Masai [Ujiri] before them, all of those people have encouraged me to do what I want to do. They are like 'Hey if you want to do this, work hard and prove that you can do it.' Just like anyone has to prove themselves. I think I've been fortunate in that respect to work with men who are open to that. I'm grateful for it.

They don't see being a woman as a limitation, they see it as a different set of skills. That's what Tim [Connelly] and Artūras [Karnišovas] appreciate the most, everyone bringing their different skillsets to the table. That's been very obvious with the group we have in the front office, we're very lucky.

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